Coal-Mining Area Grapples With How To Keep 'Bright Young Minds' Residents of Martin County, Ky., where President Johnson traveled to promote his War on Poverty in 1964, say they need jobs more than government aid.

Coal-Mining Area Grapples With How To Keep 'Bright Young Minds'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson declared unconditional war on poverty.


CORNISH: The poverty rate was 19 percent at the time. It hasn't been that high since.

SIEGEL: Johnson's war led to government programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and food stamps. Still, today more than 46 million Americans, around 15 percent, are poor. Many of them live in the Appalachian coal mining region of Eastern Kentucky. President Johnson once traveled there to promote his anti-poverty campaign. NPR's Pam Fessler takes us there today.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Colby Kirk is the kind of young man who would make a parent proud: polite, smart, focused. He's a junior at the University of Kentucky studying to be a financial analyst.

COLBY KIRK: I'm really interested in, like, assessing risk and doing cash flows. It's not something most people I guess are interested in but it's always struck my fancy, so...

FESSLER: He'd also like to come back here someday to his hometown of Inez, Kentucky, nestled in the mountains of Appalachia. We're sitting in the stands of the high school football field beneath one of those mountains, not far from where President Johnson came in 1964. Kirk says he knows things are a lot better here than they were back then.

KIRK: You know, paved roads, everyone's got a car. There's a half of a McDonald's right there.

FESSLER: He points to a nearby gas station. Still...

KIRK: There's not really any opportunities for college grads back here unless you make your own. Really hard to do that if you're a financial analyst.

MICHELLE HARLESS: I would say one of our biggest exports is, you know, bright young minds.

FESSLER: Michelle Harless is the guidance counselor at the local high school. She says she sees it all the time, the best and the brightest leave Martin County, and those who stay and don't go to college often end up in dead-end minimum wage jobs.

HARLESS: Twenty years ago, they went to the coal mines. My dad graduated high school and went to the coals mines. He is a maintenance supervisor in West Virginia, and I'll never make as much money as he does.

FESSLER: Even though she has a college degree. But those high-paying jobs are disappearing like an early morning fog. Hundreds of miners here have been laid off recently, and there are no jobs to replace them.

KAYLA: Big Sandy Area Community Action, this is Kayla(ph). May I help you?

FESSLER: Which means lots of people here have had to turn for help to some of the many government programs that were spawned by the war on poverty: food stamps, Medicaid, heating assistance for their homes. The poverty rate in Martin County is lower than it was when President Johnson was here. But it's still 35 percent, more than twice the national average.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK, ma'am. You're here to get help with kerosene lantern today. Is that correct?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And you cite that this is your address as shown on your service (unintelligible)


FESSLER: Today, more than half the income in this county comes from government payments rather than from wages and salaries.

MIKE HOWELL: In my opinion, you can never get out of poverty if you don't have a job.

FESSLER: Mike Howell runs this community action program. He says many more people here would be struggling without the war on poverty but that it's only helped them so much.

HOWELL: And it can't just be minimum-wage jobs. It can't be jobs that just will barely get you by. But in order to get those jobs, people have to have the education to be able to do those jobs.

FESSLER: His program provides some of that education and training. But getting funding is a constant challenge. And there have to be jobs to fill. So this area, like many across the country, is grappling with how to attract new businesses. State and local leaders say they need more highways and broadband access to bring technology, tourism and factory jobs to this isolated region.

MIKE DUNCAN: People in Martin County perform very well. We have very high-skilled laborers.

FESSLER: Mike Duncan is chairman and CEO of a local bank and also a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. He's concerned about all the talent leaving and has offered internships to students like Colby Kirk in the hopes that they, like him, will eventually settle in Inez. Duncan says the war on poverty has been a mixed blessing for this area's economic growth. It's improved health and lifted many Appalachians out of poverty.

DUNCAN: But there've been some problems too. There's in some instances a lack of self-reliance. I think the entitlement mentality has done away with some things that I consider very strong Appalachian values. Sometimes it's more difficult to get casual laborers today.

FESSLER: Especially, he says, for lower-paying jobs, although others complain that those jobs pay too little to live on. Colby Kirk hopes that people here find a solution soon. He says a local newspaper editor used to ask one question repeatedly - what will we do when the coal is gone? Kirk thinks too few people here took that question seriously until now.

Do you think the country needs another war on poverty?

KIRK: I think we should re-evaluate our war strategy at least.

FESSLER: He thinks today it's not so much about feeding families, as it was 50 years ago, but about giving young people hope. Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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